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NOT EVERYONE IS A SPECIALIST

Ask yourself where you learned to assign “wrong” or “abnormal” to doing many things?
— Emily Wapnick

In my last post, I wrote about the two Adam Westbook videos that helped me shift my thinking about the “when” and the “how” success ought to be achieved. Over the course of composing the post, I knew I needed to follow it up with a point of view that highlights the inherent bias in the videos: Emilie Wapnick’s TEDx talk on multipotentiality. 

In 12 minutes and 52 seconds, Emilie slowly and calmly presents her main thesis: our culture gives considerable weight to people who choose one path and stick to it, but polymaths have incredibly valuable skills to offer. She gave comfort to droves of multipotentialites watching, not to mention permission and validation to be eclectic and wide-ranging in their interests. There is much truth in her assessment of the dominant view on work and success in our culture. Popular culture is overwhelmingly in favor of specialists. We began to lean this way in the 1950s during the Cold War: as the U.S. was deep in an arms race with the Soviet Union, millions of dollars were poured into establishing research centers, labs, and companies dedicated to producing one product or one technology extremely well. Sub-specializations quickly cropped up in aeronautics, military strategy, engineering, product development, and materials science. The cult of the specialist was born. The tangible effects of wars can can certainly be measured, but unexpected psychological side effects like this that can be difficult to realize, measure, and address. 

Reverence of the specialist was inscribed onto the dominant culture, and proliferated such heavy handed ideas like: the narrowly-focused life; having a professional destiny; finding your one true calling; dedicating yourself to a single craft, etc. 

Until I watched Emilie’s talk, I hadn’t realized I had totally been drinking this Kool-Aid. It’s certainly a powerful and sticky idea though; dogged vision and unceasing love of a topic can produce amazing inventions, breakthroughs, bodies of work, and make for compelling biopics. Deep knowledge and longstanding dedication are both extremely admirable traits. 

But what if you’re not wired to focus on one thing? The Mozarts and the Marie Curies dominate the zeitgeist: people who picked a “thing” early on and stayed with it. I had not considered that these people were just wired to be specialists, and you can just as easily be wired to be a polymath. Not to mention there were simply less "things" to choose from back then. How can we shift the dominant cultural worship of specialization and clear some space to include the polymath again?

For starters, let’s reconsider and shift how we talk about professions and careers to children. The first step of this, is self-reflection. How much has the notion of the specialist factored into your thought process about success? 

Children are incredibly present. I don’t think that asking them about the future serves them, but rather our own desires to be entertained. The question also reveals our more developed frontal lobe and its bias towards planning and dreaming about the future. A better question than “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is “What are you excited about right now?” Even this question is probably unnecessary; children are incredibly forthcoming about what their interests are! They enter a state of flow drawing, reading, writing, dancing, or playing with a ball, a paper airplane, lying down on concrete and staring at the clouds. Instead of asking them to pick one thing they want to do as adults, let’s all be more observant and keep track of their creative wiring now, whether they be focused on depth or breadth in subjects. 

WHY YOU'RE GETTING AHEAD OF YOURSELF

A year ago, when I first watched these video essays by Adam Westbook via Maria Popova’s brilliant site Brainpickings, I was floored. For starters, they are well-produced and just plain fun to watch. But it was these critical messages that caused me to completely reconsider some of my beliefs about creativity:

1. Since success and ah-ha moments make for more exciting reading, most stories about great achievers in history leave out what Westbook calls “The Difficult Years”: the largely unremarkable yet critical 5-10 years of apprenticeship, practice, and experimentation that lead to huge breakthroughs. 

2. Most of these “geniuses” did not breakthrough until their forties.

I think I watched the videos three times in succession that day. The message of delayed achievement was proving to be sticky, holding just as fast to my heart as my brain. I was precisely one of the impatient, connected yet disconnected, distracted Millennials that Westbook is essentially addressing in these videos. I had spent most of my twenties thrashing about in a whirlpool of misguided ambition that leads to comparing one's self to Terri Gross’ guests on Fresh Air and then promptly feeling like a waste of space. Why wasn’t I a thought leader or extremely-young-but-highly-relevant member of the culturati? Never mind that most of these people were middle-aged and/or had devoted a lot of time to their craft. 

This kind of self-demoralizing thinking set me three huge steps back with every step forward. These videos were a wake-up call about what it really takes to live a creative life, and reminders about what creativity is not:

1. Creativity is not a quality some have and others lack. Truly, everyone is creative; some are just using their creativity more actively and deliberately than others. 

2. Creativity is not the ah-ha moment that gets written up in history books. It is an on-going process and moreover, a way of existing in the world. This means we can achieve and re-ignite creativity at any age. 

Unfortunately, the culture we live in transmits to us some problematic ideas about success. We tell and circulate success stories that completely omit the part leading up to the epiphany. However, “The Difficult Years” lay the groundwork for the breakthroughs that come later. Here, process-oriented thinking is key, both for pushing creative projects forward and maintaining sanity. The second video ends with the haunting and pointed question:

“This celebration of youth, coupled with technology, has distorted our perception of time — the world moves faster, and so do our expectations. Today, we want success in seventeen levels, or seventeen minutes, seventeen seconds — and when the promise of something new and better is just a click away, who wants to wait seventeen years? But that’s the thing that connects all of these great people — they played the long game.

All of us have the brain, and the talent, and the creativity to join them. But now, right when it matters, do any of us have the patience?"